Category Archives: Essays

Ruth Fainlight: Quiet Transcendence

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Ruth Fainlight is best known for her friendship with Sylvia Plath, but has written much elegant and vital poetry herself such as this striking poem below. One of the joys in being published in a fine journal is reading the work of others, in this case Emily Grosholz’ excellent essay in Think magazine on Fainlight. (No links because this is a print venue, but…) I will quote briefly from the essay below the poem.

Susannah and the Elders

Sometimes she’s painted clothed, but most
prefer her naked; she’s shown at various
ages: a sturdy, angry girl
able to fight back—then more
submissive; flesh to eye and handle
by merchants choosing cattle,or ancients
hoping to regain their youth.

Often the elders are timid, crouch
under balustrades, hide in the bushes,
peer around statuary. But when the maidservants
leave her alone in the garden, bolder,
the turbaned, scrawny-necked fools
creep to the foreground, pluck at her towels
and drapery, grimace encouragement.

Yet no matter how passive she seems—
or complacent, frightened, even peacefully
unaware of their presence, always
she inhabits a separate universe,
realm of the indifferent good:
purified with living waters,
a talisman of flesh and blood.

Grosholz writes, “…as Leibniz wrote, a consciousness is inviolable; a mind (unlike a body) is a unity, which cannot be entered from outside, or broken into parts, or (as he believed) destroyed. Thus the…beauty central to all the great paintings of this scene may be understood as a figure for Susannah’s awareness, here sheer presence as a self.”

This reminds me of Kwame Dawes’ poem “If You Know Her” which presents the same idea of presence under entirely different circumstances. A supremely important idea, so well expressed.

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May 16, 2016 · 6:10 am

B B King Dies: “The Thrill is Gone” and Lyrics vs Poetry

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The legendary Blues artist B. B. King has died, and it seems only appropriate that his most-loved and most famous song was “The Thrill Is Gone.” The lyrics form an especially moving element of this song, although there is no doubt King’s performance is why the song gained prominence and a major factor in its power.

Poetry, on the other hand, is supposed to stand on its own, words alone, against a background of silence. Matthew Zapruder, in this article in the Boston Review, says,

It seems absurd to me to contend that lyrics inherently have less literary merit than poetry, or are easier to create, or are less valuable in a cultural or human sense, and therefore somehow do not deserve the rarified title of “poetry.” But I also think the desire to consider lyrics as literature reflects some unfortunate and persistent biases that are detrimental to both poetry and song.

In fact, he believes the difference between lyrics and poetry are rather simple and obvious, and imply no valuation of one over the other.

Words in a poem take place against the context of silence (or maybe an espresso maker, depending on the reading series), whereas, as musicians like Will Oldham and David Byrne have recently pointed out, lyrics take place in the context of a lot of deliberate musical information: melody, rhythm, instrumentation, the quality of the singer’’s voice, other qualities of the recording, etc. Without all that musical information, lyrics usually do not function as well, precisely because they were intentionally designed that way. The ways the conditions of that environment affect the construction of the words (refrain, repetition, the ways information that can be communicated musically must be communicated in other ways in a poem, etc.) is where we can begin to locate the main differences between poetry and lyrics.

With that in mind, note the similarities between the two in the example of lyrics to “The Thrill Is Gone,” written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell. Like poetry, the meaning of these lyrics apply to a subject other than that intended by the author and singer: a reflection of an appreciative audience on the bluesman’s death.

Thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone, baby
The thrill is gone away

You know you done me wrong, baby
And you’ll be sorry someday
The thrill is gone
It’s gone away from me
The thrill is gone, baby
The thrill is gone away from me

Although, I’ll still live on
But so lonely I’ll be

The thrill is gone
It’s gone away for good
The thrill is gone, baby
It’s gone away for good

Someday I know I’ll be open armed, baby
Just like I know a good man should

You know I’m free, free now, baby
I’m free from your spell
Oh, I’m free, free, free now
I’m free from your spell
And now that it’s all over
All I can do is wish you well.

Except perhaps the part about being “free from your spell.” Who really wants to be free from the spell of a spellbinding performance?

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Filed under Essays, Lyrics and Poetry, Music, Song Lyrics

High Voltage Poetry Essay

OK, the word “essay” rarely translates into high voltage, but wait until you read this essay  by Cally Conan-Davies about Philip Larkin’s amazing poem “The Explosion.” The essay itself is an explosion. You can find the poem itself, with another more sedate discussion (but also fascinating), here.

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Poetry: A Way of Getting at Truth

Truth is in many ways elusive. If it were a weasel, poetry is not a weasel-catcher, although poetry demands a certain truthfulness. Can truth ever be “caught?” Or is it a quantum-like issue, where, if “caught,” it becomes no longer true? This view of truth changes the idea that religious dogma is “truth.” Since dogma by its nature is a way of trying to “catch” or pin down truth to limited perimeters, it cannot be truly truth.

Although it is an art, meaning an “invented” thing, the best poetry rings true. That is, one connects with it, without necessarily knowing why. It is often ambiguous, even not obviously sensible. Freed from the necessity of being sensible, poetry can give us a window to the truth by presenting the surprise elements that make everyday life more meaningful. “Meaningful” being a word that encompasses, among other things, that which is true. In this case, truth means something that has value to a person, that one’s innate sense and intuitive logic feels right about. Or finds value in.

We say, “I want to be surprised.” We want a poem to take us out of our plodding dogmas and into a world of discovery and newness, where we reconnect with the value of things. We want a poem to enhance our sense of value in life, in ourselves, in our world. We want it to bring us closer to the source code, the grail, that which is most valuable, the truth. That ambiguous, elusive, strongly felt and sensed, but hard to say or express, hit of connectedness with what really counts. Even if it is a moment of laughter. Who said truth has to be dour? Or joyful? Or any particular thing? Who wants it to be pinned down?

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